Clean Air Act – In Brief

The Industrial Revolution brought mobility and prosperity to many Americans. It also led to heavy air pollution, people became sick and some died.

Los Angeles Civic Center Smothered by Smog in 1948
Los Angeles Civic Center Smothered by Smog in 1948

On a July day in 1948, the smog was so thick in downtown Los Angeles that visibility was less than three blocks. People reported stinging eyes, irritated throats, and difficulty breathing.

A tragic incident occurred in October 1948 when the weather and air pollution combined to form a toxic fog in Donora, Pennsylvania. Over a period of five days, 6,000 of the town’s 14,000 citizens became ill and 20 died.

Unusually high levels of air pollution in New York City during November 1953 resulted in an investigation of increased mortalities during that period.

Some cities and states were already grappling with trying to reduce air pollution before these incidents, but air pollution continued to get worse, especially in large urban areas.

The federal government responded by enacting air pollution and clean air legislation.

This post offers a brief look at clean air legislation from the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 through the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the last major piece of clean air legislation passed by Congress.

Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (Public Law 84-159)

The 2-page Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 authorized the Surgeon General, in conjunction with other agencies, industries, and institutions, to investigate and study air pollution and research methods for preventing it. The law affirmed that states and local governments have primary responsibility for controlling air pollution.

Clean Air Act of 1963 (Public Law 88-206)

In 1963, Congress acknowledged that urbanization, industrial development, and the increasing use of motor vehicles was endangering the public, harming crops and livestock, damaging property, and causing transportation hazards. To address these issues, the Air Pollution Control Act was amended, expanded, and renamed the Clean Air Act.

The law directed the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish a national research and development program to prevent and control air pollution and encourage auto and fuel industries to develop devices and fuels to prevent air pollution.

The Act authorized the Secretary to prescribe regulations necessary to fulfill the Act, convene conferences, hold public hearings, and in certain cases request the Attorney General sue air pollution emitters.

Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-272)

A 1965 amendment to the Clean Air Act authorized the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish emission standards for new motor vehicles. The law prohibited modifying or disabling emissions equipment and made it illegal to import new motor vehicles that did not meet emission standards.

Air Quality Act of 1967 (Public Law 90-148)

Another Clean Air Act amendment in 1967 directed the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to establish interstate air quality control regions and national ambient air quality standards to reduce pollution. The law required the creation of an Air Quality Advisory Board to advise the Secretary and the President.

Doug Draper and other Protesters Carrying Earth Day Posters April 22, 1970 - Photo: Doug Draper
Protesters Carrying Earth Day Posters April 22, 1970 – Photo: Doug Draper

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 (Public Law 91-604)

The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 represented a major overhaul of clean air legislation and turned over responsibility for implementing and enforcing the law to the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A few highlights of the law include:

  • Required states to submit plans to the EPA detailing how they intended to meet national air quality standards.
  • Authorized EPA to develop regulations for new or modified stationary sources of air pollution emissions, like power plants, factories, and buildings.
  • Authorized EPA to develop standards for aircraft emissions and aviation fuel.
  • Directed federal government to encourage the development of low-emission vehicles by purchasing low-emission vehicles for government use and even paying a premium for them.
  • Allowed citizens to file a lawsuit against a person, agency, or the EPA Administrator for violations of the Clean Air Act.

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 (Public Law 95-95)

Clean Air Act amendments in 1977 introduced requirements and actions to address areas that did not meet air quality standards. It required the EPA to establish an air quality monitoring system throughout the U.S.

The Act directed the EPA to conduct research and make recommendations for protecting the stratosphere, especially the ozone layer and required the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish a monitoring program to detect changes in the stratosphere.

A new part entitled “Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality,” focused on protecting air quality and visibility in national parks, wilderness areas, monuments, seashores, and regional recreational, scenic, or historic places.

William Reilly and Others Watch President H. W. Bush Sign Clean Air Act Amendments on November 11, 1990 - Photo: White House / Carol T. Powers
EPA Administrator William Reilly (on right) and Others Watch President H. W. Bush Sign Clean Air Act Amendments on November 11, 1990 – Photo: White House / Carol T. Powers

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (Public Law 101-549)

The 314-page Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 expanded federal authority to establish and enforce clean air regulations and dealt with acid rain and ozone depletion. It required the EPA to conduct an analysis of the impact of the Clean Air Act on the public health, economy, and environment and submit a report to Congress every two years.

The law authorized the EPA to:

  • Regulate a specific list of 189 hazardous air pollutants.
  • Prohibit the sale of fuel containing lead or lead additives after 1995.
  • To prevent acid rain by regulating sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that result from burning fossil fuels.
  • Develop standard permit requirements for all states to follow when issuing permits for stationary emission sources.
  • Establish a program for phasing out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and hydro chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants in air conditioners, refrigerators, chillers, and freezers.

Clean Air Act Summary

Imagine taking on air pollution in 1955. There was no national collection of air pollution data, computers were in their infancy, and the Environmental Protection Agency did not even exist. It was a tall order.

Almost 60 years later, the U.S. has comprehensive air quality standards, motor vehicle emission regulations, and national databases and monitoring systems. The Environmental Protection Agency, led by an Administrator with Cabinet-rank status, is empowered to fulfill and enforce the law.

Two Young Girls with Backpacks Standing at SchoolToday, hundreds of millions of people in the United States live, work, and play in areas with clean air and little or no air pollution. This is due, in part, to the Clean Air Act, as well as the efforts of the thousands of people who work every day to keep our clean air.

Unfortunately, some people still do not have clean air to breathe and suffer from respiratory and other health ailments. Clearly, there is more work to be done.

In an attempt to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA has issued a proposed rule for fossil fuel burning power plants. This is the subject of the next post.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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